By Michael Armstrong
Skiers, mushers, snowmachiners, trappers and others recreating on the Kenai Peninsula might see a new activity this winter: airplanes or helicopters with gunner crews shooting at wolves. If the Board of Game approves two proposals on its agenda at Arctic Region meetings next month, a plan for intensive management of moose that includes aerial wolf control could start in January 2012.
Buffers would be put in so that aerial wolf control isn’t done near residential areas, said Thomas McDonough, a biologist with the Homer office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who is helping to write the plan.
“It’s likely this will be a highly visible program if it’s implemented,” McDonough said. “Our job is not to say if we want to do it or not, but to outline how it should be carried out and how we would forecast the success of the program.”
The Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee voted 12-1 last February to support aerial wolf control, or what committee chairman Mike Crawford calls “aerial predator management.”
In March 2011 at its Anchorage meeting the Board of Game considered intensive management plans but did not take action, instead directing ADF&G to draft a plan for two areas in Unit 15 to include aerial wolf control to be considered next month.
“It wasn’t done lightly,” Crawford said of the board’s action. “Right now our moose population is in dire need of help.”
Crawford said moose calf survival rates from the spring to the fall have been low. He blamed predation.
The Board of Game will take up two proposals to consider an intensive management plan that includes aerial wolf control. Proposal 35 is for Unit 15A in Kenai and Sterling, and Proposal 36 is for Unit 15C on the lower Kenai Peninsula. The board could approve, modify, reject or table the plans.
The Board of Game meets Nov. 11-14 at the Inupiat Heritage Center in Barrow. The full proposal and plan outlining how ADF&G would do aerial wolf control will be released next week through the board’s website at www.boardofgame.adfg.alaska.gov.
If approved and implemented, the plans would:
• Allow aerial wolf control in Unit 15A on 15.6 square miles of land near the Kenai Airport and another possible 49 square miles of Alaska Native land near the airport and north of Sterling;
• Allow aerial wolf control in Unit 15C north of Kachemak Bay on about 400 square miles of state land and possibly about 235 square miles of Native land;
• Allow hunters in planes to shoot wolves from the air and take killed wolves;
• Or, using ADF&G staff in helicopters, state employees would shoot wolves.
Use of Native land is pending permission by landowners.
Intensive management is a part of Alaska law regulating the Board of Game and is done to restore abundance of big game prey populations. A brochure by the ADF&G, “Understanding Intensive Management and Predator Control in Alaska,” outlines the process for implementing the intensive management law. The brochure notes that predator control isn’t done until biologists have studied the causes of declining game populations and the impact of predators and tried other methods, such as improving habitat, reducing hunting and easing predator trapping and hunting regulations.
In Unit 15A, 79 percent of the 1,314 square miles of land is the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge where aerial wolf hunting is prohibited. Approval to hunt over Native land is still pending.
According to McDonough, because most of Unit 15A near Kenai is in the wildlife refuge, aerial wolf control is unlikely to have a detectable effect on the estimated 41-45 wolves. An increase in moose or harvested moose from aerial wolf control would be difficult to detect, he noted.
“It’s a difficult plan given the limitations of the available land and where the moose population is in respect to the habitat,” McDonough said.
Moose populations are low in 15A, primarily because of habitat quality. Moose habitat improves with major fires, but there has not been a fire of more than 50,000 acres in 15A since 1969.
“The main cause keeping moose at their present level of abundance is the lack of a major fire to improve the quality of the habitat,” McDonough said.
In the central Kenai north of Tustumena Lake, large fires that destroy spruce trees result in regrowth by aspen trees. Short trees and shrubs offer good moose browse, but as the trees grow moose cannot reach the leaves.
In Unit 15C near Homer and Anchor Point, the general moose population has been healthy, with a 30 percent increase from 1992 to 2010. A decline in bull-cow ratios prompted the Board of Game to impose more stringent antler tine and brow length rules and restrict the bag limit.
The intensive management objective for 15C has been 2,500-3,000 moose, with a harvest of 200-350. Those objectives have been met.
If aerial wolf control is done on the lower peninsula, it could lead to more harvesting of calf and cow moose which would require Board of Game approval.
Complicating aerial wolf control is how to assess its success.
McDonough said there are several unknowns about the moose and wolf population in Unit 15C:
• What is the moose productivity?
“We don’t even know that yet,” McDonough said.
• What is the wolf population?
“There has never been a wolf census in 15C,” he said.
Extrapolating from other areas, McDonough said biologists estimate Unit 15C has from 40 to 75 wolves. Wolf and pack distribution also isn’t well known.
• What is the effect of all predators on calves and other moose?
The Board of Game directed ADF&G to consider wolf control and did not mention brown bear or black bear control.
“We do know that there’s too much predation going on our moose calves,” Crawford said. “Our three main predators, we’re taking steps to manage their numbers.”
The last study on the effect of predators on moose on the Kenai was done in 1977-78 by Albert Franzmann, Charles Schwartz and Rolf Peterson. Biologists put radio collars on spring calves and then tracked them when the calves died. A 1980 report by the authors showed 34 percent of the calves died had been killed by black bears, with 6 percent killed by brown bears and 6 percent killed by wolves.
Crawford said all three predators are an important part of the decline of moose calves.
“Who’s more responsible, I’m not sure,” he said.
McDonough noted that monitoring success of aerial wolf control and designing an experiment to analyze its effect will be difficult.
ADF&G did receive funding to conduct moose studies in Unit 15A and Unit 15C and plans to do that next March, as well as wolf research. That would be after aerial wolf control starts in January, if approved.
In Unit 15A in the central peninsula, biologists have done studies on cow moose and calf productions. Research there shows nutritional stress on cow moose. Pregnancy rates are 72 percent compared to about 90 percent for cows in good condition. Ultrasound measurements of rump fat on captured cows show low amounts.
A survey of cows with twins showed less than 16 percent of cows delivered twins. A rate of less than 20 percent is a sign of nutritional stress, McDonough said. In contrast, in the late 1970s, 10 years after a series of big fires in the late 1960s, cow moose had a 70 percent twin rate.
Studies have not been done in 15C on rump fat and pregnancy rates of cow moose. Twin studies show a 30 percent rate.
Crawford said it’s important to protect moose not only for hunting but for wildlife viewing.
“This is why the Advisory Committee voted to support wolf management on the Kenai Peninsula,” he said. “It’s a social thing to have moose here. It’s an economic thing to have moose.”
Written comments on the proposals made by 5 p.m. Oct. 28 will be included in board member workbooks. Comments received after that will still be accepted up to the start of the meeting on Nov. 11. Late comments can be faxed. Include the proposal number. The Unit 15A Kenai area plan is Proposal 35 and the Unit 15C lower peninsula plan is Proposal 36.